PLAYING GAMES WITH LANGUAGE: CAN VIDEO GAMES TEACH US ABOUT CULTURAL BARRIERS?

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Language is something we sometimes take for granted. The ability to convey our thoughts clearly and concisely, while still capturing the nuances that can come from our more complex ideas. We’re at a time where so many cultures and languages have mixed and mingled that misunderstandings and conflicts can come from simple misstated words or gestures.

With the internet bringing the entire world closer together, allowing us to talk to people across almost every country and all seven continents, it’s become that much easier for us to stumble over the blockades that are language barriers. To trip up on our own language, failing to present our thoughts clearly, or to completely misrepresent ourselves, even to the point of offending.

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We’ve seen many cases of cultural misunderstandings. From something as usually silly as mispronouncing something off a menu at a restaurant to former US President George Bush Sr. accidentally making a hand gesture that, while not obscene in America, is considered vulgar in the country of Australia where he was at the time.

It’s very hard to understand exactly how difficult contending with these language and cultural barriers can actually be, especially to someone from a different culture who finds themselves surrounded by people who do not understand them. So what better place to introduce the populace to these concepts than through the interactive medium of video games?

This was the basis of a conversation I recently had on Twitter with fellow writer and gamer Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin and Rommel Romero, who works for Papo & Yo developer Minority Media as a writer and social media manager.

Please Note: I will be quoting tweets from all three parties below, but they have been combined to make more cohesive statements. I did not alter the words or statements in any way other than putting them in a more readable format for this article.

It began with a response tweet from Marcus on the topic of language being used in games.

“It seems like it’s an unexplored area in games in a way. How language impacts how we play, expression of ideas, etc.”

I was immediately reminded of games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which makes up a “fake” language in order to abandon the need for language in general, expressing it’s ideas through gestures and vocal tones instead of words. But, as we soon discovered through kicking around some ideas, this was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we could possibly do with language in a video game.

“They do exist, but often it seems like it’s more stylistic and merely a means of expressing alternate forms of communication. I’m thinking more along the lines of how expressions of identity, ideas, culture and how it relates to a wider world. Although, Mass Effect for example, does some interesting things with that actually. Like how the Elcor speak.”  Marcus continues, pointing us more towards the cultural impacts of language. “Perhaps placing players in positions where they’re aware that their language is dying, or they’re alienated, or can’t grasp concepts within specific languages.”

I responded with my first idea on how to develop a game around this concept, to use the very concepts of language and culture as an element within the gameplay itself: “I think something involving team building would work. Having to work with people within a dominant culture while your’s isn’t. Having to choose between using your own language or adapting words from other languages. Even going so far as to change and alter your character based on how much of your own language or culture you keep to/leave behind.”

The initial thought I had was how your character could be in a land they are unfamiliar with, and you could attempt to assimilate or you could attempt to keep to your own ways. This could easily be represented in tangible things such as how you choose to dress your character. Giving you the option to keep the clothing of your homeland or purchasing clothing that allows you to blend in more. Giving the player the option to alter their appearance as they see fit.

This would, of course, alter the way NPCs in the places you were visiting would react to you. Perhaps they’d be hostile or less welcoming if you were still dressed in foreign garb versus treating you slightly better for adapting to their expected standards.

In order to prevent the player from simply diving into changing themselves to gain access to the entire world, I think it would be interesting to tie your cultural to your characters strengths. Perhaps the more the abandon their own culture to fit in, the less strength they have. A feeling of trading the safety and security of their familiar lifestyle in order to have a slightly less threatening world around them. It would represent the hardship of letting go of your own culture and past in order to “fit in” and how it can make you feel detached and alien. A risk/benefit for both choices, but putting the player in the uncomfortable position of sacrificing part of themselves in order to not be treated badly by those around them.

As we were discussing the concepts of cultural assimilation, I realized that this also allowed us to better represent minority groups within video games in general.

“Not to mention it’d do wonders for the game industry in terms of appropriate representation of minority characters and cultures.”

This is an obvious hot-button issue in gaming today as developers try to find better ways to represent different groups of people within video game characters. Instead of building familiar games around characters that simply wear different cultures as a skin, we actually could focus the entire game around identity. Making a character’s cultural background more than just a surface physical trait. Something that really matters within the game world and affects the gameplay itself.

At this point, I realized we had taken the concept of “language” and applied it to empathy games. I’ve written about empathy games before, and in that article I mentioned Papo & Yo and Silent Enemy from developers Minority Media. I decided to tag MM into the tweets, since I thought this was an idea that played to their talents at representing topics in a way that make it easier for others to understand.

It didn’t take long for the topic to spark interest from Rommel: “A game about the hardships of being a foreigner/immigrant in a strange land. A game that shows how crushing and even life-threatening not understanding a language can be. Because this is a harsh reality of immigration. One that isn’t given to everyone to easily grasp.”

I brought up the fact that recently, there had been a few interesting games about immigration and culture, games like Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life (which allows you to play as struggling Ukrainian immigrant Andrus) and the IGF-Award dominating Papers, Pleaseby Lucas Pope. I noted, however, that they didn’t do too much to address the language side of things. That I would like to see a game that touches on the fear of communication, or a lack-thereof.

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Rommel responded: “Perhaps more importantly, one that examines what causes that fear of communication.”

Marcus realized that this wasn’t something that was simply restricted to immigration, but something that could easily affect those being born into cultures other than the one in which their heritage draws from. “It would be equally interesting to see a game about someone born into a country where their culture is slowly eroding. It would be fascinating to see a game about a Native American having to deal with those complications. There’s such rich potential there.”, he added, bringing forth yet another area of cultural integration to explore with interactivity.

While it’s very easy to see the potential, and how the empathy game format could be a platform for introducing these concepts to gamers, I had to spend extra time trying to wrap my head around how we could represent these topics in the format of a game, and if we could even build entire gameplay systems to project the ideas we’d come up with.

My initial thought was to “break” the language of familiar games. Taking a genre or a style that players are very used to, and tweaking the language to introduce entirely new challenges. Take, for instance, the quest system often found in RPGs or action games, where a task is given to you through some NPC dialogue or a small pop-up prompt.

What if that prompt was near-impossible to understand? A simple task such as “Go to this place, collect this thing, bring it here” becomes a bunch of unintelligible gibberish to the player. Where the bulk of the gameplay comes from simply deciphering what it is you’re actually being asked to do. Making even the most simple of tasks, things that are second nature in familiar territory, extremely difficult to do correctly. Giving the player the need to dig deeper for clarification, or run the risk of mishandling the task and upsetting the person giving it to them.

With the increase in graphics, we can also tackle alternative ways of communication. Ever tried to explain something to someone using hand gestures instead of language? Perhaps an NPC that doesn’t speak your language could convey a task to you through motions or symbols, instead of words. Forcing you to apply what you know in your own language to the actions and motions of the person communicating with you? It opens a lot of potential for tweaking traditional gameplay into something that expresses the fear of not being able to understand people while not abandoning the basics of gameplay, keeping you rooted in very familiar territory.

These are just basic ways to represent cultural assimilation and language barriers within gameplay. There are many other avenues this could be taken down. I feel as though the interactivity of video games offers a very unique way of expressing what it’s like to feel “trapped” by your language or culture when exposed to those who come from different places. And the inherent fear that can come from having to abandon parts of your history in order to survive. The feelings of loss, disrespect, and pain that comes from leaving behind something that defines your culture and your heritage.

It’s something many people have to deal with daily, all over the world. And being able to experience that through a video game can help us better understand those who are losing their culture and language to the pressures of society. I hope we can better explore these concepts someday in the framework of an empathy game. I, for one, would love to learn more about these struggles, to better understand those that I meet who come from very different worlds, yet are still characters in this big game the same as I am.

I want to once again thank Rommel over at Minority Media and Marcus for spit-balling these ideas with me, it was an eye-opening conversation and one that has me very excited about the future of video games and what they can do to help us all understand each other better. If you have your own ideas on language and culture-based video games, please throw them down in the comments. There is still so many places to take the seeds we’ve planted here.

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